Sudan’s Secession Referendum: A Historical Punctuation Mark in the Making

On January 30th, 2011, the results of the historic referendum for the secession of South Sudan were made public, with the official results released a week later. Approximately 99% of Southern Sudanese citizens are estimated to have voted in favor of splitting Africa’s largest country into two independent states; the predominantly Muslim North and the more religiously diverse South. The referendum vote was held in the week of January 9th to 15th of this year, and an outstandingly high turnout of voters reflecting the urgency for political reform was beheld in the region.

A Historical Briefing

The referendum was in compliance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in Nivasha in 2005 between the National Congress Party (NCP) in rule at the Capital and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to end the second phase of one of the deadliest civil wars in post-colonial African history. Although the inequitable resource allocation between the Northern and Southern regions dates back to the British colonization of Sudan, the two regions were consolidated as one region during the prior expansion of the Ottoman Empire in 1821, which undermined the existing kingdoms in the region, and was thus subsequently followed by the Sudanese-led Mahdiyya liberation movement, which overthrew the Turks. Later, the Anglo-Egyptian condominium administration of the region lasted from 1899 to 1956, when Sudan gained its independence. During this period, inequitable resource allocation to the Northern, Nile valley, and Southern regions was fueled with minimal cultural crosstalk between the two main regions (considering Darfur and other marginalized regions as part of the greater North)1, and a deliberate concentration of political power in the North. Before the departure of the British, they established “the North Sudan Advisory Council in 1943” to facilitate the process of self-governance, with no representation of the main Southern states of Equatoria and the Upper Blue Nile2. The leaders of the South responded by organizing the Juba Conference in 1947, which aimed at representing the South in the advisory council and proposing a federation system, where the South can be given a level of regional autonomy but without full independence.

When Sudan gained its independence, the power was peacefully handed to the Sudanese people, but the majority of the organized political parties resided in the North. South Sudan had minimal representation in many assemblies and civil service positions within the central government during the following years. This led to the first armed opposition by the Anyanya group, which started the first phase of the civil war (1955-1972). The two regions signed an agreement in 1972 in Addis Ababa, which decentralized the administration and provided regional autonomy to the South. However, in 1983, the imposition of Shari’a law by president Ga’afar Nimeiry, which undermined the other belief systems widely held in the South, led the second phase of the civil war, which lasted until 2005 with the Nivasha agreement.

Too Many Missed Opportunities

Although many attribute the conflict to either dissonance in religious beliefs or lack of political representation in the government, the main issues in Sudan’s conflict remain to be the underdevelopment of the marginalized regions (mostly rural) and the centralized concentration of power and resources. John Garang, who tragically died in a plane crash still thought to be an assassination plot, was the SPLM leader who served briefly as the first vice-president of Sudan after signing the CPA. He was an influential leader calling for the unity of the Sudan on a new basis of equal power sharing and an economic development orientation. He spoke repeatedly of the need for investment in the rural areas of Sudan, where most of the country’s population lives, for true justice and peace to take place3. Political representation devoid of real economic and human development and investment is merely vacuous tokenism, with minimal consequences to the people, he and others argued. This goes hand in hand with the fact that most of the Sudanese marginalized groups are rural dwellers, and that agricultural wealth has the greatest economic potential for Sudan as a whole, if managed wisely.

On the economic development side, despite a few conscious voices that called since independence for equitable development approaches, the top-down centralized approach to development was the one followed by the country’s elitist governments. This approach resulted in wealth concentration in the Northern Nile Valley region, with emphasis on the few metropolitan areas in it. Agricultural development was supported in a few schemes that responded overall to privatized wealth accumulation for a few. In addition, there have been records of violent measures taken against agricultural workers that demanded better work conditions and more bargaining power4. The developmental gap between the centre and the margins that was inherited from colonial rule was only propagated, and rural development overall was neglected in favor of urban-oriented one. The Southern region of Sudan suffered the most from this unbalanced approach.

On the political side, and also despite a few conscious voices that called since before independence for federation as the best governance system for a country as vast and diverse in geography and cultures like Sudan, centralized governance won the fight. Popular Northern-based parties, with wealthy proponents, were more able to enforce their agenda against the warnings of the Southern representatives and minority Northern-based progressive parties (such as the Republican and the Communist parties who were the earliest two parties to call for federation). This call for federation was renewed, by marginalized political bodies, in almost every critical time in the history of independent Sudan, and was turned down in almost all of them, except for two events. The last one of these events led to the recent secession of Southern Sudan, because it was already too late to resolve the repeated mistake of missing opportunities for over half a century. The first one of these two events, in 1972 (the Addis Ababa Agreement), ended with the most relatively peaceful and prosperous decade in the history of independent Sudan, only to be abolished later by the same regime that achieved it. The reason was the shift in the regime’s power centers to favoring an exclusive Islamized-Arabized ideological orientation.

On October 1964, a special opportunity was missed. An event very unique in world history – more certainly in the region’s history – happened in Sudan. A most non-violent uprising took place against a military regime. Workers and students’ fronts united with the wide-spectrum of the Sudanese society in a well-performed act of civil disobedience that did not revolve around any recognized leading figures (to emphasize the collective political ownership of the people). This historical milestone, known as the ‘October Revolution’ in Sudan, succeeded in overthrowing the military government with very minimum bloodshed on both sides, and replaced that government with a transitional civil one with radicals and intellectuals in its cabinet. This new government soon moved to propose serious structural changes in Sudan, with land reform and new arrangements of regional administration as key agenda. Had such agenda found room for long term implementation, the path of Sudan would have drastically changed. This achievement was short lived, however, and was hijacked a few months later by the traditional religious and political figures who mobilized their support base into mass demonstrations demanding governmental elections to take place before their original planned time. These traditional leaders were confident that they will re-gain power through mechanical majority votes if they moved swiftly, and they did. Although the whole experience was a great historical lesson in democracy, and the efficacy of civil disobedience was deposited in the collective psyche of the Sudanese people, an opportunity for genuine political reform was missed.

Unbalanced Media Attention

The historical landmark of the secession referendum certainly did not receive the level of global media attention that it deserved. Sudan’s geopolitical position between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, its recent deadly history, and its mining resources render it a very critical area of the African continent. However, the recent series of uprisings in the Middle East, albeit extremely critical, eclipsed the political significance of the secession. Additionally, although history attests that the gradual movement towards loosening borders is an easier route to solidarity between separate regions, perhaps this secession will help the two areas realize their need for cooperation and later unity on more just terms.

We have seen, in recent history, many cases of countries splitting before re-uniting again on new terms. There is no reason to believe it will not happen in Sudan. This, however, is one possibility among others, and like them, depends on choices being made from now and historical conditions unfolding continuously. Many prominent political figures, from the two ‘new countries’, including leaders of the SPLM, have expressed the legitimacy of this possibility, and their desire to work in its favour. Secession may be necessary to re-unite on better terms, they say. These new terms would be of no value if they were not inclusive of the two major issues formerly articulated by the late John Garang; namely rural development and power sharing.


1 Mansour Khalid (2003). War and Peace in Sudan: A Tale of Two Countries. London: Kegan Paul International  ^

2 JUBA CONFERENCE, Juba, June 21st, 1947, Meeting Minutes. ^

3 John Garang (1992). The call for Democracy in Sudan. London; New York: Kegan Paul International. ^

4 Taisier M. Ali (1989). The Cultivation of Hunger: State and Agriculture in Sudan. Khatroum: Khatroum University Press.

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